Conflict and a Parting of Ways in the Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Being Christ’s Church is no easy task.  As far back as the New Testament, churches have been dealing with weighty matters from Bible interpretation to theological wrangling so much that we should not be surprised when some churches fight and split.

Scripture provides us with a blueprint for how to manage conflicts in church.  The question of gentile inclusion in Acts 15, for instance, reveals a process of discernment that promoted communication, testimonies, Bible interpretation, and compromise that produced healthy church growth.

A later incident in Acts 15 describes what happens when people in churches have irreconcilable differences that discernment cannot overcome.  What happens when the only solution to disagreement is a parting of ways?

Acts 15:36-41 recalls a sharp disagreement between Barnabas and Paul on whether to bring John Mark on a second missionary journey.   They did not come to a compromise and they arrived at an impasse.  Paul and Barnabas parted ways.

A close reading of the text reveals four effective strategies in managing a church conflict in which irreconcilable disagreements did not spell the end of friendships but exposed a new season of ministry inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The first strategy is that Paul and Barnabas keep their focus on God’s mission and don’t make the conflict personal.  The Bible clearly outlines that Barnabas and Paul had different personalities: Barnabas was a bridge-building who longed to keep everyone together.  Mark was family, so there was a willingness to give him a second chance.  Paul was all business.  He was not as forgiving, and God’s mission was at stake.

This strategy shows that when churches do conflict resolution well, they emphasize the mission of the church rather than resorting to personal attacks.

Second, Paul and Barnabas valued communication.  Paul could have easily went along with Barnabas only to flirt with resentment if things went sour later in the journey, but Paul was honest with his friend.  He trusted Barnabas with his concerns, and the “sharp disagreement” shows a deep sense of honor between the two men.  There was mutual respect, and in Paul’s later letter to the Corinthian churches (1 Cor. 9), Paul still considered Barnabas his peer and equal after the division–they may not have agreed, but they still affirmed each other’s mission.

What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel” – St. Crysostom.

A third strategy is to have an understanding of God’s sacred time: there is a season for everything.  What may appear to be discomfort, disagreement, or discord to us may simply be the Holy Spirit’s way of inspiring a new season of ministry.

In this season of ministry, Paul recognized that Mark was not the right guy for the job.  Later, after Mark matured in the faith, Paul recruited him to minister to churches in Colossae as Paul remained in prison (Colossians 4:10).

The focus remained on the mission and Mark was not necessarily the problem–sometimes the problem is with our sense of timing.  When seasons of ministry shift, change and discomfort result from that restless anxiety that tips our hat to the movement of the Spirit.

In times of discomfort or disagreement, we need to STOP, LISTEN, and ASSESS where the Holy Spirit may be at work to break us into a new level of revival, mission, zeal, or ministry.

Last, in parting ways not by discord but by effective conflict resolution, Paul and Barnabas expanded God’s mission.  God’s mission does not collapse or implode or falter.  When we resolve conflict by our own strength and design, churches split and bring some ministries to an end.  When God’s mission remains our focus and we make decisions because we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, God replicates and multiplies church communities.

As a result of their parting of ways, Barnabas and Mark ministered in Cyprus while Paul began a second missionary journey that ventured as far as Macedonia.  St. Crysostom wrote about this text, “What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel.”

When conflicts arise, our first step as Christians should be to put in place a process of spiritual discernment that seeks to bring reconciliation and restoration in the church and the church’s mission.  When irreconcilable differences occur, however, we must put in place a process of a different kind; yet, our concern should always be the same: Are we living deeper into God’s holiness and are we proactively reaching the lost with every decision that is made?

Standing in God’s Greatest Commandment

By Joe LaGuardia

This was presented at a Stand on the Side of Love gathering at the Vero Beach Courthouse on 16 August 2017 with neighbors, friends, and concerned citizens.

Here I stand.  I am the third-generation son of Italian refugees who escaped poverty, injustice, and fascism in Europe in order to seek a better life for themselves and their family.  They did not speak any English and their customs differed from many Americans at the time, yet Lady Liberty greeted them all as equals and with dignity as she had in years past and for a people vast.

When my family arrived in America, things were not perfect.  They ventured into ghettoized neighborhoods with other Italians, relegated to deplorable, cloistered tenement houses in New York.  And yet, in that place, they made it.  The American dream had become reality.

It is this type of liberty that defines who we are as American citizens and it is this type of hospitality and love that defined my family and shaped who I am as a minister of the Gospel.

But not all of our citizens had been afforded this kind of liberty.  Though foreign and different, my family had champions and advocates who fought for our rights as Italians—like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who represented ethnic communities in Manhattan and shamed a nation bent on spending more money on the military than on feeding poor children in one of the largest urban centers in the US.

And we also had the color of our skin going for us too.  Though I was raised in a family in which everyone, friend and stranger alike, had a place at the table, the stain of racism had reached into my neighborhood.  I grew up in a neighborhood segregated by streets and blocks, and the truth that liberty had not reached into communities of color was something I realized as I matured.  Who advocated for the “other” who were ghettoized and held captive by the projects and a crumbling education system?

For all the talk of statues and history in the news, of “us vs. them” and “who’s right and who’s wrong,” our public discourse largely misses the point: Much of our nation—the very one that welcomed my family with open arms while oppressing large populations of others—was founded not on a faulty democracy, but on a defunct medieval theology that pitted some people against others, declaring that some are superior humans deserving of all the rights afforded by our Constitution while others are only worthy for subjugation, a theology that insisted on a divine mandate that “This is God’s will for us.”

This theology continues to dominate and rear its evil head in the fabric of our communities even today, and it continues to justify inequality in our relationships just as it had for over four centuries by way of imperial-inspired sermons, seminaries, and church cultures that perpetuated colonialism, Manifest Destiny, slavery and Jim Crow, a biased criminal justice system and systemic discrimination in housing, public education, and fair-wage opportunities.

Standing on the side of love means first standing in a position of repentance, for we cannot be united by love—God’s love—without first recognizing our own lack of love, our own depravity as flawed creatures, our silence to push against this defunct theology and its ingrained toxins.  So I am a proud Italian-American, and I am a proud Baptist, and I am proud to serve Christ my Savior—but not so proud that I do not ask forgiveness for the racism and oppression and injustice that reside in my own heart.  I repent of the many ways my mind makes thousands of subconscious judgments against those who are different than I, or who speak differently or think differently or vote differently than I.

When I say “Here we stand,” I do so in humble submission to our Creator and in service to our community.  And I promise to love and respect you more today than I might have yesterday, and hope to love and respect you more tomorrow than I do today.

Going Home, Looking Forward

By Joe LaGuardia

Since moving to Florida over a year ago, I have been reflecting on some aspects of my past: high school, college, my calling, friends with whom I’ve lost contact, and other nostalgic reminiscing.  With each memory I seek to “take every thought captive for Christ,” assessing what role the memory plays in my life and how it might shape my life now.  I was in Georgia for almost two decades; I moved from Florida where I had lived since childhood.  Now I’m back.

Writing about the sacredness of places and upbringing, author and poet Natalie Goldberg notes,

We hear about people who go back to their roots.  That is good, but don’t get stuck in the root.  There is a branch, the leaf, the flower–all reaching toward the immense sky.  We are many things.

My return to Florida has been a return to my roots.  Many of these roots, however, have become dormant.  Some have died out altogether–time spent with cousins now divorced, going to car shows with the old ’84 Camaro.  My “home church” in Pompano Beach is still active but too far to visit when I’m not in the pulpit at First Baptist.

Yet there are branches and leaves and flowers, as Goldberg puts it, that reminds me that there is new growth and new frontiers.  The “immense sky” is open to so many new opportunities, but I can’t help but notice that my writing, preaching, and prayers have been caught in a time loop, almost paralyzed by the past in some ways.

I wonder whether this “time loop” is a result of nearing 40 years of age.  I have heard of mid-life crises, and though I have no inkling to purchase a Porsche or travel to Europe to find myself, I hear the bells that toll at the end of one’s life a little louder than before.  Aches and pains in my back beckon the belfry on the horizon.

I have a long way to go–my congregation would laugh at me if I spoke of age at this point in my life–but my move to Vero Beach has captured me in a time stasis, hanging between my past–what once was–and my future, what God has in store as I continue to plug away at working with a great church to build a great and vibrant ministry that will last, I hope, for centuries.

These reflections were held in bold relief when I awoke from a bizarre nightmare this morning.  It was not a normal “pastor’s nightmare,” like the ones in which you start to preach only to have people walk out on you or you show up at church only to realize that you’re in the wrong church.  There weren’t any ghosts or ghouls or monsters.

Rather, I was sitting in the home of a parishioner who scolded me for hiding for hours in my office, not doing anything useful.  “Every day,” she said, “You sit in your office for two hours, and I don’t know what you do–you just sit there and twiddle your thumbs.  Four days a week, eight hours total every week–a whole work day of doing nothing.”

I can’t explain why that particular dream struck me, although I have always taken pride in my vigorous work ethic, but I can tell you that it has to do with time.  If I pray and all I think of are memories of times past while failing to cast a vision for what God has in the future, then I am stuck for sure.

“Don’t get stuck,” Goldberg says, like angels who once told the disciples to move things along when the disciples got stuck eyeing the heavens when Jesus ascended (“As they strained to see him rising…” the NLT states in Acts 1:10).  Don’t get stuck, move it along, look for new opportunities, new growth, it is all around us and it speaks to God’s beauty and activity in our life today.

For years I have had a guilty pleasure of watching Michael Mann’s 2006 Miami Vice with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell.  I enjoyed watching it because it shows a slice of life in Florida, to which I wanted to return.  I realized yesterday, while sitting on the beach and watching my wife and duaghter search for shells and my son dodge waves, that I no longer wanted to watch the movie.  I do not crave Miami Vice anymore because I’m here, I’m home and the flowers are blooming.